Whitman alumnus helps NASA launch lunar spacecraft

Mike Loucks '85

Friday Harbor, Wash., is a town on San Juan Island, just north of Seattle. It's not the kind of place you would normally associate with space travel, but it is home to Mike Loucks '85, a Whitman alumnus who was a key player in the launch of a new NASA lunar spacecraft.

"I designed this trajectory in my home, on a PC," Loucks said. "And a $280 million spacecraft is now in the right lunar orbit because of it."

This summer, Loucks and the LADEE flight dynamics team designed and implemented a trajectory for NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, spacecraft, which is intended to orbit the moon to gather information on the lunar atmosphere, on conditions near the surface and on the environmental influences of lunar dust. A team of Loucks' friends from the commercial space industry worked alongside NASA and other contractors to "help a small NASA center do what the big NASA centers do, using modern computer technology and commercial software," he explained.

LADEELoucks' trajectory plan was highly innovative. The LADEE spacecraft flew three highly elliptical phasing orbits prior to departing the Earth for the Moon. By using "phasing loops," the trajectory was designed for maximum flexibility. The orbits could be modified quickly and easily in order to accommodate imprecise launch conditions, inaccurate maneuvers and other contingencies, without
altering the lunar arrival date. Loucks worked on site at the NASA Ames research center in Mountain View, Calif., as trajectory lead and a member of the flight dynamics team.

Loucks majored in physics/astronomy and minored in mathematics at Whitman. He received a master's degree in aerospace engineering sciences from University of Colorado. In 1995, he cofounded Space Exploration Engineering Corporation in Boulder, Colo., a company he runs from his home in Friday Harbor. He designed trajectories for the Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission in 2008 and the Orbview-II spacecraft, which launched in 1997.

For the LADEE project, he used many of the same team members who had worked on IBEX. "We told NASA and Ames that we could implement a flight dynamics system with PCs and state-of-the-art commercial software, just like we did on IBEX, and fly a spacecraft to the Moon. Here we are two months after launch, and we did it."

LADEE also carries a new Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration instrument, which is designed to transmit data at a rate of 622 megabits per second, about five times faster than current technology, which uses radio frequencies. After the month-long commissioning phase of the mission, LADEE will be lowered to its science orbit altitude, about 31 miles above the Moon, where it will spend three months before impacting the moon when it runs out of fuel.